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Lost and Found Department: Festival curators Geoff Haaz, Nick Prueher and Joe Picke introduce their golden oldies.

Video Wasteland

The Found Footage Festival stars Corey Haim, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Traci Lords and the beer abusers of Oceana County, Mich.

By Richard von Busack

THE IMPORTANCE of "gleaning" is the subject of Agnes Varda's captivating humanistic documentary The Gleaners and I. Varda investigates the old peasant custom of clearing fields after a harvest. As Varda interviews the poor of today in France, she makes a case that gleaning is a rebel's duty, a way of fighting waste and planned obsolescence. It's a holy duty, carried on by second-harvesters, dumpster divers and the staff of Found magazine. The culture of retrieving and rehabilitating discards enlivens the road-show Found Footage Festival, a compilation package of material found dumped in free boxes or sold in garage sales.

Memorial Day 2000—the most flabbergasting of the films—is a home video of a beer bust at Silver Lake State Park, Oceana County, Mich. I'm a hearty peasant myself, but the frenzied hostility of the drinking here is palpable. The anonymous camerawoman was always in the right place to check the aggression brought under the friendly surface, the raw sewage and—ahoy, nostalgia fans—the imitations of the tongue-lolling "Wazzzzuppp!" commercial (made all the uglier by green-tinged night-vision film).

Festival co-founder Nick Preuher wrote me, "This home movie was found at a garage sale in western Michigan. ... We were actually in Kalamazoo doing a Found Footage Festival recently and secretly hoped that a few of the folks in the video would hear about the show and come down. No such luck, but someone who knew some of the people in the video came up to us afterward and gave us some interesting scoop. Apparently, three of the people in the video are now kindergarten teachers somewhere in Michigan. I'm not sure how they'd feel about their video being shown in public, but, hey, they shouldn't have sold it at a garage sale."

Memorial Day 2000 stumps even those jaded by bad behavior, like, say, denizens of downtown San Jose. Images: a skinhead braying an ironic version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" while holding a toy plastic American flag with the UPC sticker still stuck on it. (Where is this bruiser now—did he become a born-again patriot after 9/11? Did he enlist?) Pickup trucks careen in a tar-black mud pit. At night, the so-called "shitter bong" comes out: it's a funnel with inch-wide plastic tubing attached in the matter of a stomach pump. Where an unnamed girl chokes on lager, an unnamed guy succeeds. "You are the whip-shit of all shitter bongers!" the former announces proudly.

Some of the material has been seen on the Internet and elsewhere. Chicago-based outsider musician Jan Terri's self-produced music videos lead one to paraphrase Terri's fellow Illinoisan Adlai Stevenson: Watching her, you feel too grown-up to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh. Terri's power-pop version of "Frère Jacques" has already been heard on The Daily Show. Similarly, the Internet has spread the footage of a newscaster who tried to do a "Pet of the Week" segment with a house cat determined to claw out his femoral artery.

Mockery of everyday chumps is all well and good, but the camera may have worsened the situation. The mulletheads clowning in Kirk's 40th Birthday Party may be revving their motorcycles and mugging with a tit-shaped birthday cake because they know they're being photographed.

But it takes a celebrity or a corporation to really crank up the embarrassment level. Low comedy abounds in two insurance-company safety tapes that consist of a montage of slapstick industrial accidents. If the acting were as good as the stunt work, they'd be impossible to watch.

Just as catastrophic is an at-home-with–Corey Haim video. Haim, a male starlet of the mid-1980s, shows that he is tanned, rested and ready in a calling-card video. "Wuzzup!" he cries, showing his good friend the cameraman around his home and sharing deeper emotions ("Kissing a girl is like—it's like dolphins in your bloodstream").

At least Haim had the temporary sense not to make an exercise video. The festival offers a montage of them, starring such luminaries as Traci Lords (reciting verse as she does some punishing back stretches), a zonked Zsa Zsa Gabor, Angela Lansbury enjoying her aerobics a little too much and a half-grown Alyssa Milano in the alarmingly titled Teen Steam.

These old tapes, with their primitive CG grids and rinky-dink synthesizers, filmed in retina-hurting shades of Nuevo Wavo turquoise and pink, are as evocative as a bakery truck full of madeleines.

So is 1986's Inside and Outside Custodial Duties by McDonald's. "Washing a parking lot? Now that's McDonald's clean!" Whether it's the crawling subservience of the new trainee or the alarmingly chipper manager—cast for her resemblance to Phoebe Cates—the atmosphere is as fraught with tension as the opening sequence of a porn film.

Prueher says, "What we show is a small four-minute excerpt from a much longer video, and we're talking over it and making fun of it the whole time. Our lawyer tells us we're probably OK. And after working for two miserable years in high school at the McDonald's where I found the video, I think the least they can do is let me show it to people."

The Found Footage Festival plays Sept. 16–17 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and Sept. 18 in Oakland at the Parkway. (See www.foundfootagefestival.com for details.)

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From the September 14-20, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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